This article first appeared in The Big Issue. Journalism worth paying for (subscriptions available)
For years my mother kept an entire cupboard where she used to save up things for my trousseau; the old fashioned concept of a bride’s personal belongings collected to take to her new life. She came back from trips to India with saris – formal silk ones to impress my future in-laws, elegant jewellery to wear to wear to parties, or attend business dinners with my future husband like a good corporate wife. There was even a beautiful velvet lined wooden canteen of Sheffield silver cutlery and I used to look at the Hostess food trolley in the corner of the dining room and wonder if it was destined to be mine. I was fascinated by her single minded believe in this imaginary grown up future me that never became.
But then I look at my secret cupboard and I realise I’ve been doing the same for my teenage daughter, but buying duplicates of my favourite things that I want her to want: Identical mint condition paperback copies of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and Simone De Beauvoir’s Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, a copy of Three Degrees’ singer Sheila Ferguson’s wonderful Soul Food cookbook, a full set of discontinued Revereware copper-bottomed pans I sourced on eBay. Talk about conflicting messages for a young woman.
Even though I’ve bought identical cookware for my son, the messages one generation of women hand down to the next feel different. We pass on some internalised traditional expectations of what women should be, but we know what was harder for us in the past. We would like things to be fairer in the future. Which is why I felt such surprise that the outgoing head of a leading London girls’ school chose to declare: “I’m sorry I’m not a feminist.” I can imagine a lot of working mothers spitting teeth to have that thrown back at them by a teacher who couldn’t even be bothered to look up the rather humble standard definition of feminist as a believer in equal rights for men and women.
Yet I contend that Vivienne Durham’s broader point was misunderstood and I’m on her side when she says there needs to be more honesty about the reality of the “glass ceiling” and that combining career and motherhood isn’t straightforward: “Young girls have massive options these days and some of them will make a decision that they don’t want to combine everything and that is as valid as making the decision that you do want to combine everything.”
So many of the brilliant women I’ve met in the course of my work- politicians, scientists, writers and educators like Durham – did not have children. They didn’t have corporate wives at home like the men. In most cases they made a choice not to, based yes on the world and the men they lived amongst, but also on the work they loved. They take pride in their achievements. And they pushed the doors open for a new generation of women to come in behind. What they couldn’t have known is how many younger men have proven they are keen to be different to their fathers too and embark on parenthood with a less rigid mindset about male and female roles. And how much easier it is to live openly with different sexualities. But being in a relationship and having children does not define a fulfilled life.
The irony of Durham’s comments is that Margaret Thatcher – the first and only female prime minister to date – was married with children. She did, arguably, “have it all”, though she was equally the exception that proves the rule, because of the key support of her millionaire husband in pursuing her ambition.
Thatcher’s adult children are now auctioning off her wardrobe, turned down it seems by a low-ranking decision maker at the V&A. It’s a sobering reminder that our children have their own ideas about the values of what we hold on to. Though I don’t imagine Lady Thatcher was the type to have bought them a trousseau. She lived for her work and was bereft at the loss of it. And whatever your politics, what sane person wouldn’t be fascinated to see an exhibition about her she took control of her image, practical about the challenge of sexism in forging a career in politics? She was a woman who, by her very success, made it possible for others to come after.
I told my daughter about my mother’s cupboard, and my own. She thought it hilarious. I may not be a corporate wife, but I am touched by my mother’s planning & her hopes. The cupboard is a repository of ideas of what we think we were and ought to be as women. Maybe the thing to do is dip into it now and then, and not be afraid to have a clear out.
Third Act Troussau: Fabulous vintage trousseau adverts’ blogpost